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A Life of Books: Elizabeth McCullough

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Quiet Home

By Elizabeth McCullough

Elizabeth McCullough’s Quiet Home to Distant Lands has recently been published by Carrowmore. Born in  1928, her published non fiction also includes: A Square Peg: an Ulster Childhood (1997); Late Developer: a Greehnorn in Ghana 1960-65 (2006);  Jack & Dorothy: Letters from the Front 1915-17 (2006); and Eighty Not Out: Memoirs of a Bad Mixer (2012).

Reprinted below is an article written by Elizabeth on the publication of her memoir Eighty Not Out: Memoirs of a Bad Mixer that gives a true flavour of her life as a writer and reader – a life of books! Also included is a brief extract from Quiet Home to Distant Lands.

Elizabeth McCullough: A Life of Books

A feminist by inclination, my mother’s exhortation not to follow the flock, was superfluous. A photograph of me taken in 1930, shows a child enthralled by a large book. As an only child in an all female family, much time was spent being read to, reading, or if the text was too difficult, just poring over illustrations. Andrew Lang’s translations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales were a favourite. Even the bulky red Army & Navy Stores catalogue or mid 19th century bound copies of Punch magazine occupied me for hours. In the 20s and 30s the colour plates in even quite modest books were protected by  thin paper: my copy of Tales from the Odyssey had a picture of the Cyclops blindly groping through his flock of sheep in his search for the quaking Odysseus. Even at nine or ten I would to dare myself to look at this plate, but cowardice nearly always won, and I skipped to something less disturbing, such as Nymphs bathing or Penelope seated at her loom awaiting the return of her husband.

My boringly factual diary for 1941 reveals little hint of any incipient talent for writing. I did, however, record events such as the sinking of the battleship HMS Hood, the number of aircraft – both RAF and Luftwaffe – shot down, and the entry of US to World War II. There are a few pithy comments on inter-personal relationships, but school reports say ‘has ability, must do better’. Glimmerings of social conscience start at 15 when an emotive letter to the Belfast News-Letter pleads  for the preservation of an ancient cherry-tree from speculative builders currently ravaging Cherryvalley. By eighteen left-wing tendencies found an outlet in voting for the Labour candidate in local bye-elections. This act of defiance shocked my staunchly Conservative and Unionist mother and aunt. To my eternal shame I tried to shake the faith of our devout Methodist maid by urging her to accept the conclusions of The Origin of Species rather than the Bible. Forty years later, driven by conscience to apologise, I was deflated to learn that  she had no recall of my efforts to convert her to Darwinism.

Rebellion extended to voluble expressions of the concept of ‘Free Love’ – I was heavily into D H Lawrence. Contempt for the Royal Family and the traditions it upheld, further upset my loving family. Loss of virginity to a married naval officer, followed by marriage to a German refugee 20 years older, marked the end of childhood.

Having completed a three-year apprenticeship with a firm of art and commercial photographers, I felt there must be better ways to pass much of one’s life  than in a dark-room: so I took a crash course in shorthand and typewriting, at the end of which I found that I could type as quickly as thoughts or ideas entered my mind. Now I urge my gifted grand-children to aspire to more than two-fingered prodding, and learn to do it properly –  a voice in the wilderness I fear – just another of Grannie’s cranky ideas.

When did writing become a way of life? Most of my ancestors were compulsive correspondents who never destroyed bundles of letters: some were gifted, most were not. At 18 correspondence was a burden rather than a means of conversation. Probably writing to the naval officer, who, while on protracted sea-trials as far as Vancouver and Newfoundland, was a catalyst. He wrote multi-page letters describing these places and I reciprocated. I learned a lot from him. Friends said that my letters were a guaranteed Good Read.

In the interval between my first marriage in December 1950 and leaving Ireland in 1960, I was strapped for cash and such social life as I had, apart from my job running the University photographic unit, was on the fringes of quasi-bohemian Belfast. The QUB film club, the Gramophone Society, the Lyric and Arts theatres, art exhibitions, night classes in pottery, figure and plant drawing, playing squash. I learned to ski and mingled with poets, painters, journalists, medical researchers and architects. I met Philip Larkin, Stanley Spencer, Langtry Lynas, Colin Middleton, Nevill Johnson, Arthur and George Campbell amongst others.

The first of hundreds of letters to my mother began in 1960. I had matured to the extent of recognising how hard my mother had battled against the raw deal of finding herself, at the end of a six-year marriage to an alcoholic, a single parent, responsible for the only fruit of the union. The ‘fruit’ must have been a daily  reminder of my father who, on first seeing me, exclaimed ‘Well done old thing, what a pity it’s a girl’. Love was not in the equation, but we had grown to respect each other and I knew that my decision to leave Ireland would leave a vacuum. The least I could do would be to write regularly and this I did over the next thirteen years.

At the top of my list of literary heros are William Trevor and Frank O’Conor followed by Katharine Mansfield, Graham Greene and a host of others. I have a collection of short stories which publishers are unanimous in saying are good ‘but not for our present market’. I am an alumnus of Strathearn School where Lucy Caldwell spent some formative years; her recent book All the Beggars Riding makes compulsive reading and I must admit to a soupcon of envy that one so young can write with such outstanding perception.

My book Eighty Not Out – Memoirs of a Bad Mixer, published by Blackstaff Press begins at Collon House in Londonderry, now St Colambanus College of which Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney are alumni. Having left it, at the age of four months, when my mother and I went to live with her parents in Greenisland, Co. Antrim, I visited it again in 1997 when I was in Derry for an interview with Radio Foyle about my first book A Square Peg: an Ulster Childhood which was published by Mercier/Marino Press in Dublin.

As I write, at 85 and a quarter, as Adrian Mole might have said, the sands of time seem to sweep through the neck of the hourglass more rapidly than ever. Every surface is littered with papers and periodicals, not to mention a tower of books which I hope to get around to reading: no Kindle for me – I love the feel and smell of a well-bound volume too much. Sitting at my desktop brings the risk either of starting a new story or polishing an old one again – too late to make any radical change now. If my readers get as much satisfaction from the world of books as I have, their lives will be full indeed.

About Quiet Home to Distant Lands:

From a small town in Northern Ireland in the 1940s, Sam leaves these shores behind for West Africa, for the Mountainsof the Moon, the lands of the mountain gorillas of Ruanda in a time before their territory was threatened by human expansion,poachers and trophy hunters. Reminiscent of Out of Africa, this novel, based on real-life experience, is Sam’s story.

Praise for the author’s previous works: (Eighty Not Out) “Open up this unsparing autobiography of a life spent mostly in Africa and the smell of that vast dusty continent comes fresh from the page” – Brian Jackman. “McCullough has lived a singular life and chronicled it with impressive determination” –Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times.

Order your copy online here.

A short extract from Quiet Home to Distant Lands:

Sam has been told to appear on the morning of 6 May at 11am on the quayside opposite the Liver Building, where two Elder Dempster liners, the Accra and the Apapa, alternated on the West African route twice monthly.

The routes varied after the Bay of Biscay had been crossed. One liner would go via the Canary Isles, the other by Bathurst, capital of the Gambia, then Freetown in Sierra Leone, before docking at Takoradi in the Gold Coast from which passengers went by rail or road to their final destination.

He was to identify crates and trunks forwarded by the Army & Navy Stores, before being authorised by an Elder Dempster representative to consign them to the hold. Queues were already forming – a short one for 1st class passengers, the longer one for 2nd class. A jostling crowd of steerage passengers gathered at the stern, eager to state a claim on a sheltered corner that would help them guard their huge cloth-bound bundles during the voyage.

For the first time, the enormity of the step he was taking struck Sam with full force. Submerged in an alien environment, surrounded by unfamiliar sounds and voices, Ahmed apart, he was truly on his own. The shouting that accompanied thumps and clattering of heavy chains unwinding from bollards reached a crescendo, and Sam noticed a faint throb indicating that the engines had started. A glance through the porthole revealed that the ship had begun to reverse away from the dockside.

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